Myth, Magic & Murder In Hollywood: An Alternative Selection

The acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino recently released his ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, in the UK. With a typically star-studded cast that includes Leonardo DeCaprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino and Margo Robbie, Tarantino’s film explores the Golden Age of Hollywood during the late 1960s, where a struggling former star and his stunt double strive for fame but are interrupted by the gruesome murders instigated by cult-leader Charles Manson. Despite controversy relating to accusations of providing minimal spoken parts for women actors, of sensationalism regarding treatment of living victims, and casual rewriting of history, amongst others – it just wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without controversy would it? – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will no doubt go on to vast success. 

Regardless of your opinion of the film, this is a good time to look at some other stories – mostly prose fiction in this case – that deal with the myths and magic of Hollywood during its struggling years as well as in its heyday. There are many examples out there, so I’ve chosen a few that I think are interesting, though not necessarily the obvious ones, presented in chronological rather than qualitative order. Oh, and a couple of books about the Manson murders as well, which are tangentially about Hollywood too, if you like that sort of thing.  

The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West (1939)

By all accounts Once Upon a Time in Hollywood maintains the director’s reputation for a pretty bonkers approach to filmmaking. There’s something about Hollywood itself that lends itself to this approach more generally, and Nathanael West’s classic novel is no exception. Painter protagonist Tod Hackett becomes inspired whilst working on the stage design for a film The Battle of Waterloo, falls in love with an aspiring actress, and becomes increasingly disconnected from reality – as have most of the novel’s larger-than-life cast of characters.  In Hollywood, reality and fiction blur with disastrous results. The climactic riot at the film’s premiere is so strange and unforgettable that it secured the book’s legacy in popular culture for many years to come, inspiring musicians (such as Bob Dylan), TV shows, films, theatre, and most famously the name of one of America’s most lovable cartoon dads – Homer Simpson – named after one of Tod’s friends. 

Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi (1974)

I’d also highly recommend this true crime classic Helter Skelter, an account of the trial of Charles Manson and his ‘family’ written by the prosecutor Bugliosi. As such, it’s a decidedly more sober account than Tarantino, with Bugliosi coming across as a stalwart, level-headed  professional. What I like about this book is that Bugliosi tells a really gripping story without being sensational: the real account of the murders, and especially the trial itself, is so bizarre and unprecedented that it doesn’t need any exaggeration to be interesting. Bugliosi manages to combine a degree of sympathy and respect for Manson and his followers – many of whom experienced pretty terrible upbringings – with a steely determination to see that they receive justice for their heinous crimes; in fact Manson seems to have respected Bugliosi in return, even though the prosecution pushed for the death penalty.  Given that the most famous of Manson’s victims, Sharon Tate, was a rising Hollywood star married to famous director Roman Polanski, you’ll find out a fair bit about Hollywood towards the end of its Golden Age here, too. 

Postcards From the Edge, Carrie Fisher (1987)

Carrie Fisher will always be best known as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, but she also appeared in many other classic films including The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally, worked significantly on the scripts of other big films (like The Wedding Singer and Sister Act) and published several semi-autobiographical novels, of which Postcards From The Edge is the best known. So who better to reveal some of the truth behind the glamour of Hollywood to us ordinary folk? Well I’ll admit that I haven’t read it yet. But Fisher’s storied career, political/environmental activism, and eccentric, witty personality, combined with the slightly unusual way in which she’s said to blend fact and fiction in a very wry manner, mean that I really want to. If anyone out there has read it, why not comment and tell us your verdict? 

Blonde, Joyce Carol Oats (2000)

Joyce Carol Oats is something of a literary heavy-weight, winning several awards for her prolific output of over 58 novels alone, let alone her publications in poetry, short stories and plays. Well Blonde is very literally a heavy weight, totalling 738 pages. The title refers to the most famous blonde of all time: Norma Jean aka Marilyn Monroe, providing a haunting and evocative portrait that aims to capture the elusive Norma behind the Marilyn facade. Oats uses a fictionalised account of Monroe’s life, with key figures cryptically anonymized –  ‘C’ is probably actor Tony Curtis, for example, and ‘the Playwright’ is pretty clearly Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband for five years – to tackle the various impressions and stereotypes of Monroe’s mercurial personality held in the popular consciousness at different times (lost and naive, vivacious and sexually-liberated, the quintessential ‘dumb blonde’, the self-destructive and tortured artist, etc.). Dark, decadent, seedy and sad, Blonde is a beautifully arranged experimental tome that exposes the grime beneath the glamour of Hollywood and is well worth the commitment.

Tell-All, Chuck Palahniuk (2010)

Writers don’t get much more disturbing, controversial or unique than Chuck Palahnuik, famous as the author of the book on which the film Fight Club was based. While Fight Club is a fine book, Tell All demonstrates that there’s much more to Palahniuk than dystopia and ‘bloke lit’. In his trademark minimalist and irreverent style, Tell All is another homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age told from the perspective of Hazel “Hazie” Coogan, a long-term friend and maid to aging actress Katherine “Miss Kathie” Kenton. Their life together has been unconventional but steady until a suspicious suitor, Webster Carlton Westward III, turns his affections on Katherine. The revelation that he has started to write a celebrity ‘tell all’ memoir about her life allows Palahniuk to play around with expectations of narrative, fame and biography – almost all in bold font, none-the-less. There are name-drops to decades of Hollywood actors on almost every page as well as a myriad of amusing anecdotes, true or otherwise. If I’m honest, it’s far from his best book (I’d go for Rant, Choke or Fight Club), but, as with all Palahniuk books, its disturbing, shocking, bleakly hilarious, bitterly satirical and compellingly absurd.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, Tom O’Neill (2019)

This exposé which supposedly reveals links between the CIA and FBI and the Manson case is next on my reading list. With a title like that, it had to be.  O’Neill is a journalist whose research into the case became obsessive, taking over his life. Apparently he accuses Bugliosi – prosecutor on the Manson trial – of tampering with witnesses, and in turn Bugliosi tried to smear O’Neil’s name with all sorts of horrendous allegations. There’s further accounts of bungled investigation, bribery and corruption – not to mention supposed links to that gold-mine of conspiracy-theory gibberish, the assasination of JFK. As if the story of a hippie cult murdering film-stars in random ritualistic killings in the Hollywood Hills, led by a failed folk musician who continued to manipulate his followers from a prison cell during their own trial, is not strange enough already. And given what we already know about the case, you feel that O’Neil’s account must have at least an element of truth about it. I’m looking forward to finding out… 

A post by Joe Norman, Library Assistant at Manor Farm Library, Visiting Lecturer at Brunel University London, professional nerd and hairless headbanger.